Let’s be honest, the realm of technology is a boy’s club. Silicon Valley is pretty much known as a 'brotopia', what with its aggressively macho culture that has effectively shut women out of the exploding, wealth-making industry.
But while big names such as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Larry Page continue to be deified as modern trailblazers in tech, folks might forget that the fairer sex has a fair share of innovators too. Which is a downright shame, considering that women are behind some of the world’s most ubiquitous gadgets that we can’t possibly dream of living without.
Not that we need International Women’s Day to celebrate women (a thing that can be — gasp — done every day), but the idea and intention behind it is righteous. As such, we’re honouring the brilliant ladies who’ve made their mark in history by inventing the things that changed the world.
’Tis the kitchen appliance that we can't imagine living without, and if it wasn’t for Florence Parpart, we would probably still be using iceboxes — insulated crates that needed constant replenishing of ice blocks to keep its contents cold. Way before that, the most common way to preserve perishable foodstuff would be to pickle, salt, smoke or dry ‘em out. Not an ideal way to live, really.
Before she helped propel the modern electric fridge into a household mainstay, Florence Parpart’s first patent was in 1900 for an improved version of a street-sweeper, an invention which was sparked after getting annoyed by a street-sweeping machine that splashed mud onto her dress. But it was Florence’s second patent in 1914 that made her name: a patent for a modern refrigerator that ran on electricity. It is believed that she worked together with her then-fiancé, who was highly skilled in electrical circuitry, to design their first prototype.
On top of being an inventor, she was a marketing maven. Florence attended trade shows and developed her own ad campaigns for her refrigerators, which became a commercial success. She definitely wouldn’t have believed that the fridges of today would be equipped with things like internal cameras, touchscreen displays and internet connectivity.
It’s not something that’s prevalent in HDB households, but if you do own an automatic dishwasher, you have Josephine Garis Cochrane to thank. Designed in a shed behind her home and constructed with the help of a mechanic, Josephine debuted her machine at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which wowed attendees enough to garner the attention (and money) of restaurants and hotels. She also won an award for its design and durability.
A socialite who often entertained guests at home, Cochrane wanted to create a mechanical dishwasher that could prevent her fine china from chipping (which would often happen when hand-scrubbed in the sink). Her machine consisted of a motor-powered wheel that would revolve the plates, cups and saucers, while hot soapy water squirted over them.
Her company — the Garis-Cochran Manufacturing company — would eventually become part of KitchenAid, and it was in the 1950s that automatic dishwashers became a common appliance in American homes.
It was during a visit to New York city in the winter of 1903 when Mary Anderson noticed that a trolley car driver was having problems looking through the window because of the falling snow. The driver had to stick his head out the window and sometimes would even stop momentarily to clean the windshield.
She returned to her home in Alabama and thought up a practical solution that could allow drivers to operate a windshield wiper from inside the vehicle. Her model comprised a lever inside the vehicle that could control a rubber blade on the windshield. It was spring-loaded to allow for the arm to move left and right easily, while a counterweight ensured contact between the wiper and the window.
A patent was filed and awarded in 1903. Unfortunately, not a lot of manufacturers wanted it due to a perceived lack of demand — this was a time before personal automobiles were even manufactured, after all. It was only after her patent expired 17 years later that demand for her windshield wipers shot up and soon became a standard for all cars. It’s unfortunate that she did not manage to reap the financial benefits during her lifetime, but it’s clear that she was ahead of the curve.
Electric water heater
In a time when water heaters ran on gas, Ida Forbes applied a patent for an electrical water heater, with an adjustable thermostatic controller to adjust the temperature of heated water. Basically, if you hate cold showers, Ida is the woman to praise.
Not much else is known about her except the patent she filed in 1917. Her invention comprised of an electric heating system that could heat up water in a vessel, which would then be attached to a nozzle to spray the heated water out.
Computerised Word Processors
All hail the queen who paved the way for writers to get paid for churning out articles online. In a 2018 obituary, New York Times described Evelyn Berezin as the computer pioneer who freed secretaries from finicky typewriters when she launched the first computerised word processor in 1971.
Previous versions of word processors by IBM used a magnetic tape drive to save keystrokes, but they weren’t computers. Evelyn called her invention the Data Secretary — a 40-inch high computer with no screen (though later version had monitors) and ran on 13 semiconductor chips, some of which Evelyn designed herself. It was cheap enough at that time (US$8,000) for it to be successful and she was soon exporting them worldwide, with a clientele mainly consisting of law firms and corporate offices.
She was also one of the first female figures in tech, having founded her own company Redactron Corporation, which manufactured and sold the word processors.